Whenever Jane Austen comes up, her fans immediately feel the impulse to start ranking her novels and arguing over which one is best. It’s a reasonable inclination: There are only six completed Austen books, so you can get comprehensive easily, and arguing over rankings is always fun.
The downside is that because Austen only has six novels, after a while you’ve heard every variation and you know the history of each argument. One person will reasonably say that everyone loves Pride and Prejudice, so that one’s best, and another person will explain that Pride and Prejudice is for basics and real Austen fans love Emma. One person will pop for Persuasion, and another person will counter that Persuasion is so uncharacteristic for Austen that saying it’s your favorite is as good as saying you don’t really like Austen. It’s an argument that’s been happening for a while, with little variation. In the 19th century, the hipster litbro pick was Mansfield Park, but everyone wanted to marry Elizabeth Bennet.
So on the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, I’d like to propose an alternative to ranking her novels: Let’s make like a high school yearbook and give them superlatives instead. Each of her books does at least one thing perfectly, so let’s pinpoint what that one thing is for each one and celebrate it. Everyone wins.
Northanger Abbey: Funniest
Northanger Abbey wasn’t published until after Austen died in 1817, but it was the first novel she ever sold to a publisher (in 1803). It’s a little lighter than Austen’s other work, and a little more brittle, with a palpable contempt for most of its characters. Northanger Abbey is fond of silly, flighty Catherine Morland, its heroine, and of patronizing Henry Tilney, its hero, but it isn’t about to let its fondness get in the way of mocking them. And it has so very much fun mocking them that you’d be sad if it stopped.
Sense and Sensibility: Most well-rounded
Sense and Sensibility, the first novel Austen published during her lifetime, is not as good at any one particular thing as many of her novels, but it holds all of her strengths in beautiful balance. Its love stories are not quite as developed as Elizabeth and Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, but its portrait of the sisterly love between Marianne and Elinor is better than the corresponding relationship between Elizabeth and Jane. It’s not as funny as Northanger Abbey, but it has more heart, and it’s not as moving as Persuasion, but it’s funnier. It’s where Austen figures out all the skills she’s about to deploy so skillfully over the course of her career.
Pride and Prejudice: Most charming
This one’s easy. Everyone loves Pride and Prejudice, because it is such a very lovable book, and because it is nearly impossible not to adore the witty and stubborn Elizabeth Bennet as soon as you meet her. “I must confess that I think her as delightful a character as ever appeared in print, and how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least, I do not know,” Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra. Pride and Prejudice sparkles and bubbles from its iconic first line all the way through to its conclusion, and it dares its readers not to be charmed.
Mansfield Park: Most psychologically complex
Mansfield Park used to be a popular candidate for Austen’s best novel, but it’s currently going through an unpopular phase. It’s never been a personal favorite of mine: It’s an oddly dark and didactic book, in which the characters who are endowed with that sparkling Austen charm all turn out to be wicked or amoral and the morally upright characters are pinched and humorless. But its portrait of its heroine, Fanny Price, is a stunner. Fanny is a neglected child who latches onto the only person who has ever shown her any affection — her cousin Edmund — and when he withdraws his attention from her, it affects her developing psyche in sad and painful ways. I’ve never loved Mansfield Park, but it’s worth admiring.
Austen famously remarked that Emma Woodhouse was "a heroine whom no one but myself will much like,” but in fact Emma Woodhouse is enormously lovable. That’s because Austen lets you into her head so cleverly: You see all of Emma’s happy self-delusions about how kind and helpful she means to be those around her, and simultaneously you see that she is a snobbish busybody taking out her boredom on everyone in her path. Emma is serenely joyous in her self-aggrandizement, and that makes her a delight. On a purely technical level, it’s a beautifully achieved effect, and some critics have argued that in Emma, Austen more or less invented and perfected the use of the free indirect discourse that the modernists would love so deeply.
Persuasion: Most beautiful
Persuasion is also the most melancholy Jane Austen, and the most lyrical, and arguably the most romantic, all of which are perhaps part of why it’s such a beautiful book. If Pride and Prejudice is a sparkling and babbling brook, Persuasion is a quiet pool with still, deep waters. It’s laced with regret and nostalgia, but it’s not as dark as Mansfield Park because at the end it explodes with that triumphant, cathartic love letter Wentworth slips into Anne Elliot’s hands. The claim that it’s uncharacteristic for Austen has some truth to it: It’s not the witty drawing room comedy of manners she’s known for, but rather the thoughtful work of a writer at the height of her powers, beginning to engage with the Romantics writing all around her. It’s an entirely different aesthetic mode than the rest of Austen’s work, but that mode is incredibly beautiful.